Pittsburgh Technical Council

Back on Track: Wilkinsburg CDC leads efforts to revitalize an almost forgotten city

Back on Track: Wilkinsburg CDC leads efforts to revitalize an almost forgotten city

Article Published: October 27, 2016

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The Wilkinsburg CDC works to promote the revitalization of Wilkinsburg through business and residential development; organizational and individual civic leadership; and ethnic and cultural diversity. 

It is Wilkinsburg’s Main Street organization, so much of its work focuses on business development, streetscape improvements and marketing initiatives within the “Main Street” corridor of Wilkinsburg, which includes Penn Avenue, Wood Street and South Avenue. TEQ talked with the Wilkinsburg CDC Communications & Outreach Coordinator Marlee Gallagher about what’s happening with real estate investment, the arts and restoring the Train Station to get the city back on track. 

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TEQ: As Pittsburgh’s East End has been growing with tech companies/real estate development, are you starting to see people looking at Wilkinsburg as a place to invest?

Marlee Gallagher: Yes, we get calls, emails and visits almost every day from people looking to invest in Wilkinsburg, whether buying their first home or buying a large commercial building. Close to 19 percent of Wilkinsburg’s properties are vacant, and as a result, vacant property acquisition, whether residential or commercial, accounts for one-third of the total inquiries our office receives each year. Because vacant property is both a huge issue and a major opportunity, we dedicate a lot of our time and resources to educating people about the tools that are available for acquiring and rehabbing vacant property in Wilkinsburg. To this end, we have developed innovative programs, such as the Vacant Home Tour, which has engaged thousands of people from around the world.

As we see more interest in our community, we are working to reduce barriers to development and make it easier for investors, developers, business owners, home buyers and homeowners to understand Wilkinsburg’s tax incentives, find available property, connect with lenders, and in the case of business and home owners, learn about available tools and financing for making improvements and staying in place.

TEQ: What makes Wilkinsburg an attractive place for  tech companies, startups, artists, etc.? Best-kept secrets we might want to know about?

MG: Wilkinsburg is not just a place for innovators, makers and artists. It is the place for these types of people. As the birthplace of radio broadcast and Scholastic books, Wilkinsburg has historically offered a nurturing environment for innovative startups and entrepreneurs. Wilkinsburg is home to a historic business district with buildings dating back to the 1890s and several longstanding businesses that have operated in the community for 20-plus years, including James Floral, Kenyon Jewelers, Pittsburgh Asian Market, Stanton Electric, Soul Food Connection and Upbeat Records. Wilkinsburg has always prized its business district, promoting the concept of shopping small long before it was trendy to do so.

In addition to its strong business community, property in Wilkinsburg is still affordable despite the major and high-end redevelopment happening in neighboring East End communities. Not only is the property affordable, but Wilkinsburg has some incredible historic architecture. Check out Hamnett Place, our community’s National Historic District, the John F. Singer Mansion, which is surrounded by several Frederick Scheibler buildings, and the eastern end of Regent Square for some examples.

Beyond the physical aspects of the community is the quality of the people in Wilkinsburg. Wilkinsburg is full of dedicated residents and people who want to volunteer and be involved in their community. Wilkinsburg also has a well-established network of artists and makers. In fact, for the past two years, these creatives have gotten together to produce Dream City Art, a borough-wide art walk and studio tour that features 40 artists who live and/or work in Wilkinsburg.

TEQ:  Tell us about some of the CDC’s key projects. Who are your partners and how can people help out?

MG: Our key projects are:

• Business District Revitalization: We support existing business owners through financial and technical assistance, attract new businesses by reducing barriers to development, and foster a diverse retail environment in Wilkinsburg.

• Image and Identity: We work towards changing the negative perception of Wilkinsburg by developing relationships with the media, creating events, promoting businesses and community activities, and developing Wilkinsburg’s brand.

• Green, Clean and Safe: We reduce and prevent litter through clean-ups, enhance green space and streetscapes with plantings, street furniture, ongoing maintenance, and improve public safety by fostering relationships with block watch groups and the Wilkinsburg Police Department.

• Education and Youth: We support youth programming at local organizations through mini-grants and marketing assistance and encourage leadership development.

Our partners include Allegheny County, Borough of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania Downtown Center, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and a number of other local organizations, schools and universities, businesses, and nonprofits. We’re always looking for new partners, volunteers, committee members, and ways to connect with other areas of the greater community!

TEQ:  What’s the best thing about being in Wilkinsburg in the fall?

MG: Each year, we kick off the fall season with our annual fundraiser, the Wilkinsburg House & Garden Tour, which takes place on the last Saturday of September. The tour is always a fun time and a great way to raise awareness about Wilkinsburg, offset negative perceptions by showing people what our community is actually about, and, of course, raise funds for our programs.

This fall in Wilkinsburg, however, is extra special. We’re kicking off a huge capital campaign for the Wilkinsburg Train Station on October 6. Built in 1916, the Beaux-Arts style Train Station building is on the National Register of Historic Places, but sadly, it’s been vacant for over 40 years. We plan to change that through our $3 million capital campaign. Our community envisions the building as a transit-oriented public space as it sits right along the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway. As we celebrate 100 years of this great building this year, we’re excited to work with the community to make our vision a reality!

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